by Katherine Paterson. (Dutton, 1991. ISBN 0525673385 . Order Info.) Novel. 192 pages. Grades 5-9.
Readers who know Ms. Paterson's ability to portray a different time and place through believable and likeable characters will not be disappointed in this book for sixth graders and up.
Lyddie Worthen, an impoverished Vermont farm girl in 1843, is determined to gain her independence (and money to pay off the debts on the family farm). Her father left the farm to earn money but has never been heard from since. Her mother, crazed by her obsession with an End-of-the-World religion, rents the farm and hires out Charlie(10) and Lyddie(13) into a kind of bondage. Charlie, accepted into the family he was hired out to, does well. Lyddie, hired out to Cutler's Tavern where, after observing the apparently successful life of a young woman factory worker who stopped at the tavern, Lyddie decides to go to the factories at Lowell. The remainder of the book is set in and around the mills with their regulation and exploitation of the workers.
The life in the Lowell mills is extremely regulated. The workers are exploited by the owners and bosses and those who agitate are dealt with harshly. Illness is a major concern. Lyddie becomes friends with Diana Goss, Betsy and Brigid. When she is dismissed, Lyddie decides to go to Oberlin College( Ohio) for an education. She says she may return to Luke Stevens(a young Quaker) to marry when she is "not a slave."
There are many things in this fine novel which can bring about interesting discussions and insights. When we first meet Lyddie she stares down a bear and there are other metaphoric bears for her to stare down throughout the book for readers to identify. The equation of exploited workers' lots with those of slaves' is worthy of debate and the role that literacy plays in the book, from the misspelled but prophetic, "we can still hop" through her own development of reading skill to teaching the other workers and to her own pursuit of education at Oberlin can be traced.
Extensions of this book can result in a research unit on labor, child labor in specific, or on the role of mills in the economy of New England.
Things to Talk About and Notice
- When discussing this book with readers, stay within the action of the book as long as possible. As always, Paterson has given us much to think and talk about. At the beginning of the book, when they've lost their farm in Vermont and Lyddie and her brother have been more or less sold off by their mother and their father has "gone west," Lyddie promises Charlie that they'll be back. It's a promise she clings to and saves for throughout the book. Their equally unschooled mother has written, "We can still hop," meaning "hope" and that becomes a recurring thought for Lyddie and Charlie. Later, when Triphena, the cook at the tavern, says, "Some folks are natural born kickers. They can always find a way to turn disaster into butter," Lyddie repeats, "We can still hop." Is that the theme of the book? Which of the characters are "hopers?"
Lyddie's quest is clear and unwavering throughout the story: she wants to get the farm back. Triphena aids her at the beginning of the quest. Does Lyddie achieve her quest? What does she achieve? Who are the others besides Triphena that aid or hinder her quest? What other characters in the book are on quests and how close to they get to their goals during the story?
- Don't leave the book without paying Paterson's writing ability some attention. How does she make us feel and hear what her characters do? Paterson uses foreshadowing when she says, "It was because of the molded sugar that Lyddie's dream of taking the calf money home came true, though she couldn't have known how that dream was going to come out." Are there other places where that writing technique is used? What other techniques can you identify?
- Make copies of Lyddie's correspondence and watch her spelling, grammar and use of words improve. What's causing the improvement?
- Lyddie's discovery of the runaway slave Ezekial Abernathy, in her abandoned house, is her first contact with a black person. Why did he have to hide even in Massachusetts? What were the slave laws at the time? He makes Lyddie rethink her own position. Is she a slave? Was her mother? Why does she give him the calf money?
- Reference is made to the fact that the railroads are bringing cheaper wool to the mills from the West, eliminating most of the sheep-raising in New England at the time. Other effect of the railroads at the time might be worth exploring for some researchers.
- Paterson lets us see the details of the company owned boarding house, hear the clatter of the looms and smell the lint-filled air of the mill. The beginnings of the labor movement are represented in Diana whose radical ideas include petitioning for better working conditions. Lyddie sings some lines from a union song. Can you find and sing others? There's "The Union Maid" "Roll the Union On" and "Bread and Roses" to name a few.
- The employment of children is worth investigating. What are the child labor laws now? And what about the mills of Lowell? If they are now abandoned, where is wool fabric made now? Why?
- In 1911, New York's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire and 146 people died, mostly sweatshop seamstresses unable to escape. Had the conditions in the mills changed much in the seventy five years between the time of Lyddie's mill and this one? What did cause the change finally? What are the working conditions in factories now? Interview some factory workers to find out. Find out which companies in your area have the best relationship with their laborers. Are most of the factories unionized? Why or why not?
- Look at the rest of Paterson's work. Her settings vary widely. If you had her abilities where would your next book be set? What setting do you know enough about to write a story with that setting?
- Lyddie's kindly neighbors, the Stevens, are Quakers and some children might want to investigate Quakers in order to understand the Stevens family's actions. Some might want to read Marguerite de Angeli's Thee Hannah (Doubleday, 1970 ISBN 0-385-07525-1) for further information and for a story about Quakers in a different setting at about the same time.
- There are other books about the labor movement, one of the best being a book for younger readers, Trouble at the Mines by Doreen Rappaport (Crowell, 1987 ISBN 0-690-04446-1.) This is the fictionalized account of the coal miners' strike in Arnot and the part that Mother Jones played in it as seen through the eyes of Rosie Wilson, a young girl whose family suffers greatly because of the strike but comes out with jobs and lives intact. Readers should have no trouble making analogies between work in the mill and in the mines.
- Several books are mentioned in Lyddie where reading takes such an important role: The Bible, Oliver Twist (its effect on Lyddie is profound) and The American Dictionary. Children might like to hear parts of them or look at them or watch the movie Oliver. Lyddie says she understands Fagin. Do you?
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